Skip to content

links for 2010-09-23

September 23, 2010

Upcoming Changes in the Federal Homeland Security Structure?

September 23, 2010

Within the last two weeks, I’ve come across two articles, both by people who should know about these things, purporting to have heard about changes in two central pieces of what defines homeland security in the US. Both changes sound like efforts to make the federal role in homeland security (and indeed response) more strategic and all-encompassing.

First, the National Response Framework (NRF). Eric Holdeman, writing for Emergency Management Magazine, gives a hint that DHS hopes to have an NRF rewrite in place by this time next year. The really interesting part is this:

Recently I also saw a PowerPoint slide–with no further explanation that [sic] there will be four new National Response Frameworks (I think that includes the current rewrite mentioned above).

That alone is interesting, but when coupled with this article by Philip J. Palin, of Homeland Security Watch, which says that several people have heard that the White House is looking to rewrite, or scrap, the current Homeland Security Presidential Directives (HSPD). We spent a lot of time a couple years ago discussing HSPD-21 here, so this is something that’s relevant to our little corner of the world.

Palin wrote a memo to the Obama transition team on just this subject, and posted it. Below are what Palin identifies as the five sources of the problems with the HSPDs:

1. Many of the HSPDs serve an interagency coordination function that has been superseded by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (e.g. enhanced INS and Customs cooperation).
2. Many of the HSPDs are operational rather than strategic. Moreover, the operational frameworks set-out may not be well-suited to current and emerging conditions and complicate strategic adaptation.
3. Taken together, the HSPDs give much more attention to response than to prevention, preparedness, or recovery. Mitigation is seldom considered.
4. Between the first HSPD in October 2001 to June’s [2008] publication of HSPD 24 there is an increasing attention to threats other than terrorism. Beginning with HSPD 5 (February 2003) a goal is articulated to be prepared for all-hazards (or “terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies”). But there is an ongoing threat-orientation as opposed to a risk-orientation. This is inconsistent with the risk-based foundations of both the existing Homeland Security Strategy and the strategy signaled by President-elect Obama.
5. There is no significant or sustained attention to resilience and the distinction between catastrophic risk and other risk is implicit at best. The current collection of HSPDs offers a broad view of the threat horizon, but very little guidance as to the strategic priorities along that horizon.

In my eyes, the most interesting of these (valid) concerns are the second and the fourth. The first is easily understood as guidance given early in an overhaul process that didn’t stress anticipation (and also demonstrates the operational, as opposed to strategic nature of the HSPDs). The third criticism shows that the HSPDs were written with the help of emergency managers. Mitigation is a blind spot in the field and, I would argue, part of a broader society-wide investment process that might not be best lead by emergency management. This point is echoed in the fifth criticism where it mentions a lack of focus on resilience.

The second one is something, honestly, I wish I could have seen when reviewing HSPD-21. I admit that I was was green at the time and still very much in the weeds. Rereading that HSPD shows how specific it was and completely not strategic. Once the goals set forth were “met,” the HSPD was essentially a useless document.

The fourth I find interesting because of the differentiation between threat-orientation and risk-orientation. I don’t think anyone understands what this looks like on an everyday basis more than public health planners. Ask your local planner what their mass prophy plan looks like, no better yet, ask what their anthrax plan looks like. I’m sure they’ll be very proud of how detailed it is, and what a great score they got on the TAR last time around. Then ask them what their plan for a Hepatitis A outbreak looks like, or their heat emergency plan looks like, or their plan for coordinating alternate care facilities to support overwhelmed hospitals looks like, or special medical needs sheltering, or evacuee triage. The CDC and, by extension (by fiat?), public health departments, have focused almost exclusively on the mythological airborne release of weaponized anthrax spores. I would argue that this laser-like focus on a specific threat has put us at a greater risk of other threats.

I, for one, am excited to see the stamp that this Administration puts on homeland security in the next few months — and not because the previous Administration’s efforts were poor, but instead because we’ve learned so much since then.

links for 2010-09-22

September 22, 2010

When to Call in the Big Guns

September 22, 2010

A few months back, I found an article out of the Heritage Foundation (admittedly political), Federalizing Disasters Weakens FEMA – and Hurts Americans Hit by Catastrophes, that specifically addressed the role of FEMA in disaster response. Most of the article, frankly, talked about things that I’m no expert (or even novice) on; but the idea of the article, one of the three Long-Term Recovery Challenges noted by the authors, and two of the final recommendations are simple enough for even me to understand — and highly relevant to the work that we do every day.

The authors, Mayer and DeBosier, argue that FEMA is stretched too thinly to appropriately respond to catastrophes and coordinate the long-term recovery associated with those catastrophes. They feel that FEMA has increasingly been responding to emergencies and disasters more traditionally associated with county- and state-level response. A natural outcome of this shift in response responsibility (the authors call it “federalization”) is that states and locals came to depend on the new federal aid, and subsequently reduced their capacity for response to localized disasters (three-county floods, the authors use as an example). To wit, FEMA is spending the bulk of their resources on responding to these (on a grand scale) small disasters, and they argue that has hampered FEMAs ability to coordinate the recovery of something big, catastrophic, like Hurricane Katrina.

(To be completely honest, the authors also assert that bureaucratic inefficiencies play a large role in strangling the recovery of the Gulf region.)

In their recommendations, the authors posit the assumption that FEMA is over-tasked and under-resourced. In that light, they feel that Congress should simplify FEMAs work by redefining what they can respond to. Maybe only Category 1 and above hurricanes. Additionally, they feel that Congress should recalculate the minimum dollar threshold for requesting federal disaster assistance (I would argue this figure should be tied to a local inflation index instead of a blanket nation-wide figure).

And then there’s the big one. They argue that Congress should administratively limit the types of disasters that FEMA can respond to, concentrating solely on larger, more regionally affective disasters. Freezes, droughts, thunderstorms and even some tornadoes shouod fall under the purview of the local and state government. Putting aside FEMAs traditional role in flood response, localized flooding could be added to that list, and snowstorms, too. Basically, they argue that local and state governments and private insurance companies can respond more quickly, and appropriately, to local disasters than putting the full weight of the federal government in play. As an example, 2009 flooding in northwest Louisiana was given a major disaster declaration and should have received about $10 million from FEMA to assist with recovery. Staffing the JFO in this situation is budgeted at $6 million dollars, the cost of the major disaster declaration is actually 60% higher than reported, all to respond to a disaster confined to a single state.

So, what do youthink? Is FEMA over-tasked? I know that what the authors are proposing would have real repercussions (we had snowstorms here this past winter that received federal recovery funding, all of that would go away in this scenario), but it’s certainly an interesting way to look at the current situation.

Quickly Noted: The Worst Case

September 21, 2010

Last spring, one of my favorite security bloggers, Bruce Schneier, wrote about his experience at a security conference where the moderator asked panel participants what their worst-case scenarios were.

You know the kind, you’re explaining your POD plan, and someone pipes up, what if there’s a snowstorm, and all the power goes out and the internet is down and there’s an asteroid coming and they’re allergic to all three medications, how will people know where to go for their medication? The response I tend to give in my head is, “Well, we’re all screwed at that point, so who cares.” Out loud, though, I assure them that’s a valid concern and that we’d work with our partners to get the message out, door to door.

Schneier gives four reasons why worst-case thinking adversely affects our planning and response, but I wanted to focus on the first of them:

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

Our recent H1N1 influenza response demonstrates, to some degree, why this is. By and large, most health departments planned for H5N1, so when a milder H1N1 flu came through, our draconian closure and quarantine and isolation measures seemed out of whack. A lot of places ended up scaling back their planned actions kind of haphazardly due to the situation at the time. We hadn’t considered the costs of our planned actions (or more specifically, blinded us to the costs because we assumed we would only do this during the “worst-case scenario”). Truly a lesson to be learned.

The Next Pandemic

September 20, 2010

John Barry, pandemic biographist extraordinare, has an interesting editorial in the Summer edition of the World Policy Journal here. Titled, The Next Pandemic, Mr. Barry takes us on a quick tour of the lessons learned from H1N1 and finds that while a lot of us who are rewriting the rulebook have learned the right lessons:

Based on their results, health organizations will likely adopt modest management changes. The WHO previously defined an influenza pandemic as basically any occurrence in which a new influenza virus enters the human population and passes easily between humans; it may refine that definition by adding a virulence factor, similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale for hurricanes (category 1 to category 5). Vaccine delivery systems will improve. Local hospitals will upgrade their triage practices. And some fundamental changes which were already underway—such as shifting vaccine production away from chicken eggs, a technology used for more than half a century, to new production technologies—will accelerate.

Mr. Barry then rails against the political machinations that we saw during H1N1:

The WHO has come under intense attack for declaring a pandemic at all, and critics have even charged the pharmaceutical industry with influencing the decision.

If the current criticism of the WHO makes it more cautious in the future, the world will become a more dangerous place.

He then lists a variety of decisions made purely for political reasons that — should the pandemic been what we originally feared — would have, at best, done nothing or, at worst, exacerbated the situation.

Barry’s summation is harrowing:

It’s still a threat as a pandemic, while HIV and SARS demonstrate that new infectious diseases can emerge at any time. Meanwhile, a sense of complacency seems to be settling over the world. Because H5N1 has not become pandemic and H1N1 turned out to be mild, the idea that influenza is no longer a threat has become pervasive. Everything that happened in 2009 suggests that, if a severe outbreak comes again, failure to improve on our response will threaten chaos and magnify the terror, the economic impact and the death toll. And it will come again.

My take? Barry is spot on. After all, pandemics only happen every thirty years or whatever, right? Seriously, though, the scapegoating process is very familiar in pandemic situations. The Spanish flu will always be the Spanish flu, if only because they were the only country to really admit to having it. Swine flu is still swine flu (to most people), no matter what the pork board says. And the bit about vaccine hoarding is a real concern.

My worry, though, from a planner’s perspective (because I think we’ve learned the major lesson about over-planning for worst-case only), is what Gerald Baron saw during in the Deepwater Horizon clean up. Political machinations, by government and corporation, have hampered the response; have misdirected the focus of the responders (read: you and me). Knee-jerk reactions to shunt blame (whether it’s culling pigs in Egypt, or complaining that BP won’t release raw video footage) will derail any response, whether it’s PR related or public health related. And nothing, but nothing, will enable the response to quickly refocus. That’s why it’s essential to involve the political players in your planning, early and often. Table-top it out and if your Alderman says, “I would never say that,” then you’ve got a problem.

I don’t always agree with Mr. Barry, but think he’s sounding the right alarm bells here. I highly recommend you check out the short article here.

links for 2010-09-17

September 17, 2010